Financial misdeeds allowed in Alex Murdaugh murder trial
A judge has ruled that prosecutors can call witnesses to testify how Alex Murdaugh allegedly stole money as part of the double murder trial for the disbarred South Carolina attorney as long as they can show it is convincing evidence and linked to the killings.
Judge Clifton Newman on Thursday heard from witnesses outside the presence of the jury to decide whether they can give evidence in the case.
First up was Jeanne Seckinger, who has worked her way up to office manager and chief financial officer in 24 years with the law firm founded more than a century ago by Murdaugh's family. Seckinger testified that Murdaugh sometimes kept entire fees required by rules to be shared with the firm.
"That would be stealing," Seckinger said.
Murdaugh also took money to be paid in lawsuit settlements to clients in wrongful death or accident cases, Seckinger,said. Instead of depositing money with a company called Forge Consulting for safekeeping for the clients, Murdaugh created a company called Forge under his name and kept the money.
The law firm found bank statements for a company called Murdaugh as sole proprietor doing business as Forge in Murdaugh's office, Seckinger said.
In all, the firm determined Murdaugh diverted more than $2.8 million this way. The law firm paid everyone back, Seckinger said,
Under cross examination, Seckinger said the scheme had been going on since 2015 without being detected.
Seckinger also testified that Murdaugh spoke to her about trying to have his fees and other payments diverted to his wife's accounts because he was worried about a wrongful death lawsuit filed against him, his son and others over a 2019 fatal boat crash where Paul Murdaugh was charged with felony boating under the influence. A hearing in the case was postponed after the killings.
Newman didn't immediately rule whether to let the jury hear Seckinger's testimony.
Instead, jurors heard Thursday afternoon from an investigator about how he found Maggie Murdaugh's cellphone on the side of the road near her property with help from her family.
A second investigator testified about unlocking the phone and, under cross-examination, said she was "observant" in looking for any evidence of blood but didn't find any as she searched for guns and ammunition in the home the day after the killing.
Newman said he is inclined to allow the evidence of financial misdeeds because it can complete the story of why the crimes were committed with immediate context.
Prosecutors said the evidence is key to their case. They said Murdaugh killed his wife and son at their Colleton County home on June 7, 2021, because Murdaugh was confronted earlier in the day about $782,000 in fees that should be in his law firms account but could not be found.
Murdaugh planned the killings to gain sympathy and buy time so he could find a way to cover up the missing money as he had numerous times before in the past decade or so, prosecutors said.
Murdaugh's lawyers said prosecutors are trying to smear Murdaugh with bad behavior not related to the killings to bolster their weak case. They have called it absurd and ridiculous to think that Murdaugh would believe having his family brutally killed would do anything but bring scrutiny into every nook and cranny of his life.
And it did.
Along with the two murder charges, Murdaugh faces about 100 more counts with most of the charges coming before his murder indictment in July 2022.
The accusations range from money laundering, to stealing millions from clients and the family law firm, tax evasion and trying to get a man to fatally shoot him so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy. State agents charged Murdaugh with tax evasion, saying he made nearly $14 million as a lawyer over nine years, but also stole nearly $7 million from his law firm at the same time.
Murdaugh, 54, is standing trial in the shootings of his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son Paul. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
Since the killings, Murdaugh's life has seen a stunningly fast downfall. His family dominated the legal system in tiny Hampton County for generations, both as prosecutors and private attorneys known for getting life-changing settlements for accidents and negligence cases.